Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible / Edition 1

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While the story of the big has often been told, the story of the small has not yet even been outlined. With Dust, Joseph Amato enthralls the reader with the first history of the small and the invistble. Dust is a poetic meditation on how dust has been experienced and the small has been imagined across the ages. Examining a thousand years of Western civilization -- from the naturalism of medieval philosophy, to the artistry of the Renaissance, to the scientific and industrial revolutions, to the modern worlds of nanotechnology and viral diseases -- Dust offers a savvy story of the genesis of the microcosm.
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Editorial Reviews

... what sustains this book is the question that really interests him about today's subatomic, virtual-reality age: 'will this transformation of the human relationship to the small and the invisible . . . come to constitute a revolution in imagination?'
Chicago Tribune
This one won't sit on your coffee table collecting, well, eponymous stuff.
Washington Post
A brisk social, medical and philosophical overview of humanity's relationship to the small and invisible.
Los Angeles Times
Amato¹s elegant little book not only scutinizes dust, but reaches out to examine the history of the small and invisible, in general . . . .A diverting, thought-provoking amalgam of science, literature, intellectual and social history. Playful yet serious, Amato¹s supple prose conveys the hidden poetry of his subject
St. Paul Pioneer Press
One of the most clever books published last year. A brilliantly written, often humorous look at microorganisms-fleas, mites and other small things that historians usually ignore.
Amato writes well; he is a litterateur, an elegant stylist and,presumably, a good historian. Clearly, though, Amato is no scientist . . . I'm sure many lay readers will find this book entertaining.
Amato's love of language matches his delight in his subject. A unique perspective on how we have altered our environment and perhaps our nature.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Playful yet serious, Amato's supple prose conveys the hidden poetry of his subject.
The very inventions that brought light, heat, running water, and sanitation to society creted new miasmas and particulate matter to darken and poison the earth. . . . [Amato] has forcefully underscored just how much humankind has both suffered and feared, celebrated and revered, the visible world of dust.
Daily Telegraph UK
Both suggestive and well written. It is also printed on beautiful acid-free paper, to prevent it from turning into dust.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Playful yet serious, Amato's supple prose conveys the hidden poetry of his subject.
St. Paul Pioneer Press
"One of the most clever books published last year. A brilliantly written, often humorous look at microorganisms-fleas, mites and other small things that historians usually ignore.
... what sustains this book is the question that really interests him about today's subatomic, virtual-reality age: 'will this transformation of the human relationship to the small and the invisible…come to constitute a revolution in imagination?
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Until this century, dust and dirt -- motes, mites, flea parts, skin flecks, pollen, garden dirt -- were the smallest things most people thought about. They seemed omnipresent and ineradicable. Now we vacuum our kitchens, take showers, study quarks and give most dust the brush-off. Speaking up for the little things, Amato (The Great Jerusalem Artichoke Circus), professor of intellectual and cultural history at Minnesota's Southwest State University, offers a book-length meditation on the importance and symbolism of particulate matter in Europe and America. Anthropologist Mary Douglas; medieval historians like Lucien Febvre and Carlo Ginzburg; Renaissance sculptors, glassblowers and alchemists; microscope pioneers Leeuwenhoek and Hooke; and Dolly the cloned sheep all figure in Amato's speedy cultural history. Medieval French folk frequently deloused each other and called their thumbs "louse-killers." Early Victorian urbanization brought Britain filthy slums, along with reformers who tried to clean them up: later on, lightbulbs banished indoor soot. The Dust Bowl years of 1932-1938 darkened the skies of the American Midwest and caused more than half its residents to move away. Amato aims at a broad literary readership, not at historians of science; his synthetic, essayistic bent can make for glib and predictable generalizations ("Until the Industrial Revolution, humanity accepted the cyclical nature of life"). In our century, Amato writes, "smallness and dust have diverged"; by now dust is neither our metaphor for littleness, nor our constant companion. Instead "contemporary people are married to a new microcosm" consisting of things (like viruses) too small to see. Readers who find such a thesis small potatoes may still find themselves enticed by Amato's accounts of the minuscule.
Library Journal
To call something "dry as dust" is to suggest that it is dull and insignificant. Thus, one might wonder why anybody would write a book about dust. Amato (The Decline of Rural Minnesota), a cultural historian, gives it a noble effort, but, in doing so, stretches his resources. It's not that dust is entirely devoid of interest -- it has had a profound effect on human health and hygiene, and you might say that the ultimate fate of the universe depends on how much dust resides unseen in the cosmos. Still, because the topic itself is hardly riveting, Amato places it within the broader context of the history of human understanding of the microcosmos. That's a much bigger subject than the title suggests, and it deserves a more comprehensive treatment than this book attempts. An optional purchase.
Chicago Tribune
This one won't sit on your coffee table collecting, well, eponymous stuff. (Editor's Choice)
The Washington Post
A brisk social, medical and philosophical overview of humanity's relationship to the small and invisible.
Daily Telegraph (UK)
Both suggestive and well written. It is also printed on beautiful acidfree paper, to prevent it from turning into dust.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520231955
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 262
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph A. Amato is Dean of Rural and Regional Studies at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota. Some of his most recent titles include Golf Beats Us All (So We Love It) (1997); The Decline of Rural Minnesota (1993); The Great Jerusalem Artichoke Circus: The Buying and Selling of the American Rural Dream (1993); and Victims and Values: A History and Theory of Suffering (1990).

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. —Genesis 3:19

If dust rises high and sharp, vehicles are coming; if it is low and wide, foot soldiers are coming. Scattered wisps of smoke indicate woodcutters. Relatively small amounts of dust coming and going indicate setting up camp. —Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In times before industry, when agriculture dominated, men and women were intimate with dust in ways beyond contemporary imagination. Dust accompanied them throughout their days. Although they saw many small and fine things, dust was commonly the smallest. For no one was this as true as for the peasant who lived by the earth.

    After offering a definition and discussion of dust in the preindustrial world, this chapter looks at the relationship to dust of the European peasant of the Middle Ages. It does this not because European peasants were closer to or farther from dust than, for example, the first peasants of the agricultural revolution of ten thousand years ago in the Near East, or twentieth-century peasants of the remote countryside of Eastern Europe, Asia, or Africa. Rather, it dwells on medieval European peasants because they provide a gauge of Western civilization's ascent from fine and minute things for the few, to sanitation and cleanliness for the many, to our contemporary expert manipulation ofthe submicroscopic and atomic orders.


Throughout most of the world's history, dust was in the air, settling on the surfaces of things, piling up in dark corners of huts and castles. Even though most individual dust particles went unseen, dust as an entity functioned to mark the boundary of the small. Beyond that boundary an invisible and magical realm was believed to exist. Dust was formed, among other things, by the spores of mushrooms that exploded into the air, sprinkling their seed-bearing powder. It was formed by ultrafine airborne seeds (sometimes hundreds of thousands to a fraction of an ounce) or by "antbread," a barely visible part of a tiny seed that ants drag to their nests and which, if uneaten, springs up into plants.

    In its smallest and most deeply hidden forms, dust was too hermitic and magical to be understood. Yet its existence could not be denied. Its rising particles, shimmering in the light, appeared and disappeared before one's eyes. Finely ground dusts of plants and minerals put a telling taste in stews and made powerful medicines for the body, drugs for the mind, and even deadly poisons.

    Dusts brought smells: the unpleasant smells of the old, the stench of the pig farmer, the putrid breath from rotting teeth, and the pleasing scent of the fresh skin of one's lover. Unseen dusts circulated through the air, mingling with water vapor and forming snowflakes. Fire filled the air with the smell of burning wood, and the smell of sea salt could reach far inland when the winds were right.

    There was no escaping dust in dry seasons, at harvest times, during great fires, or when volcanoes erupted. Dust accompanied the elements—fire, earth, air, and water—and it was like an element itself. Fire turned objects to ashes and soot, which are dusts. Water transformed earth to mud and dirt, which air dried and blew around as dust. Dust came from animals and plants, clung to bodies, and pervaded clothing. It filled dwellings whose walls, floors, and roofs were composed of mud and thatch. All over the world, people of times past fell asleep and woke up in dusty beds.

    People made dust whatever they did. Human bodies themselves were dust mills. People made dust when they rubbed their hands together or ground food with their teeth (especially with their molars, whose etymological origin is mola, millstone). Out of human bodies came materials that over time would turn to dust: wax from the ears; mucus from the nose; phlegm, saliva, and vomit from the mouth; dandruff from the hair. From the anus came waste, which along with animal manure was plowed into the earth and made into soil. There it dried and became dust. The body itself was fodder for worms and provided manure for the earth. There was nothing on earth so big that it might not be made small.

    However, dust was about more than discarded materials. Certain dusts not only provided essential goods but were treasured in themselves. Powdered spices flavored cooking. Specialized dusts served cosmetics and pharmacy with colors and powders to beautify, to soothe, to enchant, and to intoxicate. Animal and human wastes turn to powders, dusts that serve important purposes.

    Even in more recent times, at least among common folk, dust was taken to contain the essence of things. Common prescriptions forbade sweeping dust out the front door because it might take away a family's luck. "It must be swept inwards and carried out ... then no harm will follow." Similarly, "if dust is swept out of the shop door, it is said to sweep away trade." To clean a house or fireplace perfectly boded ill. Bodily wastes—associated with dust as a part of the earth—were understood to embody a person's essence and emanate special powers. In medieval Europe, mummies from Persia were ground up and sold as medicine. Folklore records the great healing powers of dust from the Communion table. After all, what could be more precious than the crumbs of the body of Christ? (Communion bread was made from the age's finest grain. It was marked triple-X in the Middle Ages and was not outranked until the end of the nineteenth century, when Pillsbury put four Xs on its bags of flour to suggest the ultimate in fineness.)


In the metaphorical universe of opposites from which humans construct their cultural significance, dust and dirt form a negative pole. These half-brothers reside with the weak, the lowly, and the amoral. Dust gathers with the rejected; found under beds, it was given the slang names beggar's velvet, house moss, and slut's wool. Dust is associated with death ("to bite the dust"), with insult ("eat my dust"), and with dismissal ("to dust off"). Dirt refers to what is morally compromising ("get the dirt on" or "throw dirt at" someone). A "speck of dust" or a "piece of dirt" are insignificant. In American slang, people of lower socioeconomic classes are described as "muck worms" or "mud sills." Lesser individuals are described as "chicken feed" and "crumb." To be a nobody is to be "a little snot" or "a little shit"; to be an ill-bred person is to be a "dreg" or a "grub."

    Like its close associate, dirt, dust defined human experience from its beginning. Dust, in the form of soot and ashes, revealed where fire had burned and things had been transformed. Rising dust indicated commotion (hence the phrase "to kick up dust"). As any good ancient general or medieval condottierre knew, different forms of dust in the sky could indicate either distant enemy campfires or approaching armies.

    Dust could mark human or climatic damage to the earth: wind erodes most severely where soils are finest and where they have been most abused. Blowing dusts could mark a barren land, like the Sahara Desert, or an abandoned city, like Tell Asma, northeast of Baghdad. They could be the source of the pall that hung over cities and poisoned lands and waters.

    Conversely, some dusts, such as gold dust, were regarded as the essence of the most valuable things. The finest dusts were considered to be the lightest earthly thing. In fairy tales, a mere sprinkle of dust could cause wondrous things to occur.

    Dust's ambiguous metaphorical place as both the most ordinary and the finest of things derived from its role as a frontier between the seen and unseen. Like skin, a tissue that stands between the interior and the exterior, dust separated what could be known by the senses and what lay beyond them. In this respect dust was like darkness: it formed a graduated and permeable screen between the realm of what was empirically known and the realm of the imagined. In it images appear and vanish, things are transformed and even generated. Dust formed a shadowy realm that harbored secret exchanges and sponsored unexpected transformations. Associated with caves and cellars and other such places where neither light nor darkness entirely prevailed, dust was an ambiguous reservoir of important and unimportant, living and dead.

    Human observation confirmed dust's elemental role in reality. All things broke down into smaller things. All matter could be made dust by force, fire, or rot. Dust—variegated and omnipresent—formed the elemental particles of everything on earth, except in the minds of a handful of classical atomists, who insisted that beyond dust there were yet smaller particles (atoms) that accounted for the making and unmaking of things.

    People observed with their senses that the smallest living creatures—bugs, spiders, and worms—were creatures of dust. They generated spontaneously in dusty places. Worms appeared in compost piles, maggots formed in rotting meat, cockroaches were born from scraps of food that fell to the floor, and mice sprang out of dirty boxes left in undisturbed darkness.

    People of the preindustrial, rural order grasped intuitively what contemporary people strain to imagine: the eternal cycle of all living things. It made sense to them that God used spit and earth to make humans—after all, what else was available?—and they had no doubt that they, along with the mightiest monarchs, made good food for worms. People of earlier eras did not have to reach to comprehend Shakespeare's words, "A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm."


Men and women of preindustrial times used the full possibilities of their culture to differentiate themselves from the small and degrading things to which the life cycle chained them. For the sake of continuity of self and the autonomy of being—for the angel within them—they strove to rise above the muck and slime, the worms and vermin, the gnats and ants that surrounded them. With taboos and rituals against the contaminated and the polluted, and with elevating and sublimating religious conceptions, they sought to transcend the biology that ruled their bodies. They insisted that they were not just the dust grovelers, dirt eaters, and excrement makers they knew themselves to be. They would not have themselves reduced solely to the church's Lenten warning: "Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris." (Remember, man, of dust you are, and to dust you will return.)

    In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas offers another reason why people flee dust. She contends that dust and dirt are the detritus of cultural constructions of order. Dust and dirt—leftovers, what the cookie cutter didn't cut—constitute a kind of disorder, an inchoate state of being, and thus a type of moral defilement. For twentieth-century people to understand this, Douglas counsels, they must set aside current notions about taboos serving primitive hygiene codes and make an effort to conceive of dirt avoidance before it was shaped by modern bacteriology. By freeing dust and dirt from recent concepts of pathogens and hygiene, contemporary people discover that dust and dirt were traditionally associated with transgressors and transgressions. To be dirty, or grovel in the dirt, connoted indecency and immorality. Steering clear of dust and dirt sustained the cultural order, affirmed moral rectitude, and, most important, assured those who were clean that they were also morally pure.

    Perhaps there is another reason why traditional people distanced themselves from dust and dirt. These substances are commonly associated with degeneration, which produces not just threats to bodily integrity but also the most unpleasant sensual experiences. The smell of putrefaction can cause people to vomit as a matter of physical reflex. And with it comes the revolting sight of the oozing forms that accompany decomposition of organic materials. Its odd colors—dark reds, deep purples, and thick yellows—awaken fears of death. The white, almost translucent, maggots that accompany decomposition further evoke the threshold of chaos. The powers of the putrid, which contaminate dust by association, are concentrated in garbage piles, in compost heaps, and on battlefields. Every hunter, peasant, and cook knows that rot does death's work. It is no surprise that religious legends held that only the bodies of saints and devils escaped putrefaction after death.


Nineteenth-century Romantics, preferring the earthy people to the middle class, equated dirt with all things basic. Dirt—as soil, earth, and even manure—was for them the land's substance and the nation's moral nutrient. Dust, by contrast, was seen as removed from life. It belonged to the refined and the desiccated. In making this distinction the Romantics identified dirt as grit and ordure and dust as part of a cloud of vapor or smoke. This lineage is supported etymologically: The word dirt was borrowed from Old Norse drit, which goes back to a prehistoric German-based drit that also produced the Dutch dreet, or excrement. Accordingly, in the thirteenth century dirt kept its primary association with smelly and unclean matter. Only in the seventeenth century—after the word manure (itself originally identical to maneuver) took on the meaning of dung that is spread and worked into the field—did dirt take on the meaning of mud and soil.

    Lighter than dirt, and more susceptible to winds and breezes, dust has often been associated with motion and commotion. It has even been made to stand for industry and progress, whereas dirt frequently is taken to belong to the land and thus to evoke the essence of a place. For this reason, dirt can be transformed into grounds for nostalgia. It can be made to evoke the soil, its touch and smell, and by extension the people who invested themselves in a given plot of earth. Dirt, in this metaphorical succession, also represents the old ways: hence the expression "a stick-in-the-mud."

    As dirt can be emotionally expanded in meaning to represent life, so dust can be contracted in its meaning to connote only what is dry and desiccated, divested of animation, antithetical to life. It can be associated with the dead leaves blown by the wind or the emptiness and sterility of the wind itself. This contrast between dust's sterility and dirt's fertility has served literature in the past two centuries by characterizing types of people. There are dry-as-dust scholars—anemic, weightless representatives of a bookish sort of mind—and there are dirty men and women, a vital breed of humans who live on the land and, in sharp contrast to "the calculating bourgeoisie," are authentic in spirit and action. Romantics since Rousseau have prescribed a return to the countryside, to the land, to the very earth itself, as a spiritual cure for their disaffection. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky has Raskolnikov, the intellectual and murderer, kiss the ground at the crossroads to start on the true path to forgiveness.

    As much as dust and dirt might be differentiated, they still shared earth as their mother. Both were dark and inferior. Both were identified with decay and death. Both belonged to the realm of the insignificantly small. The residue of discarded life, dust and dirt were trod underfoot and swept out, except by the most superstitious. Even Christ instructed his disciples to shake from their sandals the dust from a house in which they were poorly treated. And yet Christ mixed dirt with saliva to heal the blind.


Probably since the beginning of agriculture—whose origins lay in the Near East eight thousand years before Christ—court and city dwellers have labeled peasants as coarse, stinky, and worse. If Snow White's wicked witch had asked of all history who was the dirtiest of them all, her mirror would undoubtedly have answered, "The peasant." No one was on more intimate terms with dust and dirt. Peasants were universally identified with the color of the earth they worked, as inferior, dark-skinned people. At the root of their inferiority was their proximity to dust and dirt.

    Medieval European peasants lived mired in muck. Even the medieval city, according to Lucien Febvre, wallowed in mud:

The sunken road leading to the gate was muddy. Past the gate the street widened as it followed a capricious route through the town. A filthy stream ran down its center, fed by rivulets of liquid manure seeping from nearby manure heaps. It was a muddy slough in the rain, a desert of choking dust in the heat of the sun, in which urchins, ducks, chickens, and dogs, even pigs in spite of repeated edicts to control them, all wallowed together.

Dust ruled peasants' homes as well. The kitchen, the most important room in the house because it contained fire and food, filled households with dust, soot, and smoke. Historian Jerome Blum offers this portrait of the dwellings that housed the great majority of Europe's peasants from the early Middle Ages to the mid-nineteenth century:

Most peasants lived in huts that were small, low, uncomfortable, and unhealthy. Many had only one room, or one room used as living quarters and a second room that served for storage or as a stable. Not infrequently the floor was dirt. The hut held a few pieces of crude furniture that included a table, benches along the wall, a shelf or two and perhaps a cupboard, and, especially in eastern Europe, a large stove that took up much space in the crowded room.... Frequently there was no chimney, and the walls were blackened by smoke that could escape only through a hole poked in the roof wall. The small windows let in little light, so the hut's interior was dark, damp and gloomy.

    The poorest peasants were even worse off, living in filthy hovels and caves. Their beds were rubbish heaps. They were married to the rags they wore, the dirt that covered their bodies, and the smells of their bodily wastes.

    As the Italian historian Piero Camporesi explains, peasants were infested by vermin and enveloped by disease.

[They were] dirty, almost always barefooted, legs ulcerated, varicose and scarred, badly protected by meager and monotonous diets, living in humid and badly ventilated hovels, in continuous, promiscuous contact with pigs and goats, obstinate in their beliefs, with dung heaps beneath their windows, their clothes coarse, inadequate and rarely washed, parasites spread everywhere—on their skin, in their hair and in their beds—their crockery scarce or nonexistent, often attacked by boils, herpes, eczema, scabies, pustules, food poisoning from the flesh of diseased animals, malignant fevers, pneumonia, epidemic flues, malarial fevers ... lethal diarrhea (not to mention the great epidemics, the diseases of vitamin deficiency like scurvy and pellagra, the convulsive fits, so frequent in the past, epilepsy, suicidal manias and endemic cretinism).

    Peasants did not doubt that they were members of the biological kingdom. Mites, lice, ticks, fleas, and mosquitoes—each had their sting and bite, and all made human beings their food and spawning grounds. A southern Italian peasant of the twentieth century declared the peasant's community with small and hurting things when he said, "We peasants are poor earthworms; we live with the animals, eat with them, talk to them, and smell like them. Therefore, we are a great deal like them."

    Human skin was vulnerable to dust and the creatures it nurtured. Historian Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie said that sixteenth-century skin diseases were rife among peasants. They included "the itch, ringworm, scabies, leprosy, St. Anthony's Fire and St. Martial's Fire." Even peasant insults and curses made reference to "scrofula, fistulas of the thigh, ulcers and abscesses." "Villagers carried around with them a whole fauna of fleas and lice. Not only did they scratch themselves, but friends and relations from all levels in the social scale deloused one another. (The mistress deloused her lover, the servant her master, the daughter her mother.)" The thumb was called the louse-killer (tue-poux).

    Although their macrocosm reached to the stars, peasants' lives and hopes revolved around small things. Not unlike contemporary people, they held on to scraps and remains to preserve the essence of belongings and loved ones. Medieval people often preserved fingernail clippings and locks of hair from the head of a deceased family patriarch in hopes of preserving the domus's good fortune.

    The balance of the peasant world teetered on tiny grains. Peasants literally measured life by it. Grain meant food for today and seed for tomorrow. In good times, French peasants would respond to an inquiry about how they fared by saying, "J'ai du pain" (I've got bread). In bad times, they looked in the dust for things to eat. They dug up roots and ate rats and insects. Nothing was too small to be considered as food. According to the sixth-century bishop and historian Gregory of Tours, during famines people tried "to make bread out of virtually anything: grape pips, hazel tree flowers and even fern roots, and [their] stomachs were grossly distended because they had to eat field grass."

    During famines, which stalked European peasants until the nineteenth century, the smallest things could sway lives and fortunes. Peasants who lost their place on the land became wanderers. They scavenged the countryside for food, sought refuge in the woods, and flocked to the cities, where they lived under bridges, in piles of straw, or even in manure heaps. Beggars in tattered rags were everywhere—at the door, outside churches, in the marketplace—and they died like the flies that covered their decaying bodies. Hunger real, hunger remembered, and hunger feared drove peasants from youth to the grave and kept them mired in dust well into the eighteenth century, making life for the majority, as Camporesi comments, "the antechamber of death."


Peasants were not the only medieval folk who were dirty and whose everyday encounters with the small made them itch and scratch. Kings and queens were also on intimate terms with vermin. Eugen Weber describes a young French princess in 1700 who had to be instructed "not to take lice, fleas, and other vermin by the neck to kill them in front of other people." The ladies of the French and Spanish courts were so familiar with vermin and perhaps just so bored with them that they "affected to train and feed pet fleas." In an age when running water was scarce and baths rare, kings and queens stank. Some were notorious: "The smell of Henry IV was so ferocious that his wife had to brew special perfumes to stand him, and Louis XIII [Henry's son] prided himself on taking after his father."

    Royalty commonly sucked aniseed lozenges to sweeten their breath, made foul by rotting teeth and bad digestion. With noses guarded by perfumed handkerchiefs, they picked their way through manure-filled streets. But neither riding horseback nor a haughty attitude could protect them from splashing mud, rising vapors, or swarming gnats. Diane Ackerman points out that Louis XIV kept a stable of servants to perfume his rooms with rose-water and marjoram and to wash his clothes in spices. "He insisted," she writes, "that a new perfume be invented every day." At his "perfumed court," "servants used to drench doves in different scents and release them at dinner parties to weave a tapestry of aromas as they flew around the guests." Nevertheless, these birds could not mask the palace's stench for long, as the building's many small apartments were without running water.

    While some royal personages were celebrity stinkers, royalty and nobility alike attempted to separate themselves from the rest of pungent humanity by adopting manners. Manners, according to Nobert Elias, were a way for high society to distinguish itself from dust and dirt. In Civility, Erasmus taught the upper classes manners to distance themselves from the most incriminating of dirts, their own bodily discharges.

To wipe the nose on the cap or sleeve belongs to rustics; to wipe the nose on the arm or elbow to pastry cooks; and to wipe the nose with the hand, if by chance at the same instant you hold it to your gown, is not much more civil. But to receive the excreta of the nose with a handkerchief turning slightly away from noble people is an honest thing.

    The high and mighty had to be taught how to react to the lowly stuff that came out of and resided on them. They had to learn not to disdain the picayune but to bring it—with the help of wig, makeup, razor, and toothbrush—under the control of civilized manners. After all, civilization was largely about appearance, and appearance required constant surveillance of the small stuff of the body. A single anecdote may reveal how far the manners of Europe traveled. In A Canoe Voyage up the Minaysotor, the English traveler George Fatherstonaugh described a U.S. federal judge he met in Wisconsin Territory in 1835:

The Court [title for the judge] and myself got along very well together. He had been bred to the law in the western country, did not want for shrewdness, was good natured, but was evidently a man of low habits and manners. He was very much amused with my apparatus for dressing, which was simple enough; a nail-brush was quite new to him and he remarked that "it was a considerable better invention than a fork, which he said he had seen people use when they had too much dirt in their nails." He "didn't see why I wanted so many toothbrushes." He "once carried one, but it was troublesome, though the handle was convenient to stir brandy-sling with."

Travel in Europe in the eighteenth century offered similar experiences, according to an English traveler, Arthur Young. Journeying through France and Italy in 1790, he denounced a northern Italian inn: "Frightful, black, filthy, and stinking, and there are no window panes." Things improved for him in Turin and Milan but deteriorated again when he boarded a decked boat from Venice to Bologna with a skipper who "takes snuff, wipes his nose with his fingers, [and] cleans his knife with his handkerchief at the same time he is preparing food for you."


Besides lacking goods and means, European civilization until the twentieth century lacked a sufficient number of toothbrush-carrying Fatherstonaughs to clean up society. Even city dwellers' lives were clean only by comparison to the dingy lives of peasants. Overcrowding filled the cities and their dwellings to bursting point. Destitution, disease, and vermin abounded. Without running water, sewage systems, paved roads, or street lighting, even the best of cities were by today's standards rustic and foul. In London in the 1830s, the exiled and impoverished Italian social thinker Giuseppe Mazzini, unable to afford a cab, revealed his poverty by arriving at his appointments covered in mud. "The dirt in London streets appalled him. So did the bedbugs, which increased his nostalgia for Switzerland." "Improper drainage," wrote Eugen Weber of European urban life, "was a great source of infection. Sewers and cesspits seeped into wells and cisterns." Some cities had oceans and rivers in which to dump sewage and garbage, but most "wallowed in wastes, ... the excrement of daily life lapping round the feet of their citizens." Of seventeenth-century London, Gamni Salgado observes, "Apart from Cheapside and Strand, London had no real streets to speak of, only narrow tracks that in wet weather stank with the slime of generations of filth and garbage, daily renewed by the discharge from doors and windows. Only when the plague ravaged the city was anything done about the piles of refuse that stood outside of every front door."

    Until the middle of the eighteenth century, European society was ensconced in darkness and mired in muck. The dainty and delicate were the exception. Dust, dirt, and muck multiplied and diminished according to the seasons, seemingly more at home with human beings than human beings were at home with them.

    The worm literally and metaphorically connected men and women to the earth. They could not understand their relationship to the earth without reference to the work of the worm. Camporesi noted that men and women of the preindustrial age "lived—metaphorically and concretely—in a verminous universe, unimaginable today." Popular obsessions with worms at times swelled into contagions of fear. Within the imagined wilderness of the body, worms were savage beasts.

    Not immune to this fear, physicians invented an invisible microcosm that explained illness as the behavior of unseen worms within the body. They postulated harmless worms, "innocent guests," which could become infuriated, bump up against the intestinal walls, and cause death. They claimed that sick worms defecated within the human body and their excrement befouled human blood, causing cardialgia, hiccups, stomach pains, headaches, convulsions, and epilepsy.

    Worms, which along with snakes crawled in and out of skulls in medieval mortuary art, penetrated both the popular consciousness and medical debates. They evoked the horror of being consumed and digested in the darkness of the coffin. Besides stimulating confessions and intensifying wishes for a heaven, worms served the era's science. In The Cheese and the Worms, Carlo Ginzburg explains how worms figured in the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller who was burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition for heretical ideas. The miller, Menocchio (whose name means "little eye"), drew an objectionable analogy: "From the most perfect substance of the world [the angels] were produced by nature, just as worms are produced from a cheese, and when they emerged received will, intellect, and memory from God as he blessed them." The miller argued that God himself was spontaneously generated out of chaos, the first "great and crude matter." In Menocchio's view, heaven itself was consumed by the subterrestrial microcosm of worms.

    Menocchio was not alone in conjuring up dark images of invisible enemies, even though a certain degree of orthodoxy could be maintained by contending that not even worms inside the body could escape the all-seeing eye of God or the devil's machinations. The evil that had led the world astray was explained by invisible demons who festered in feces. These demons transformed themselves into legions of worms, flies, spiders, and bats. In the form of scourges and clouds of locusts, they attacked human fields. It was the devil's cunning, people said, that taught rats to flee houses falling to ruin and worms to escape the body of a dying person. "A quite certain sign and portent of [death] was the flight from dying flesh of these slimy and very sticky inhabitants of the dark, warm and damp recesses of the body." The small and the invisible always required explanation and proved to be an open medium for human imagination.

    The human beings of the preindustrial world could not escape, and therefore could not think beyond, the boundaries of dust, darkness, and skin. To transcend these limitations would require a great cleanup of the human environment. Water and light would have to be turned against earth and darkness. Clean, shiny goods would have to be created in vast quantities. Knowledge of the small and the invisible would have to become the concern of a new breed of curious men and women with new theories and machines. But first a fresh and acute view of the microcosm, along with a brand new order of fine goods and instruments, would have to be created. In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, curious scientists and thinkers breached the frontiers of dust, darkness, and skin as no other civilization in the West ever had.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Little Things Mean a Lot 1
1 Of Times When Dust Was the Companion of All 15
2 Old Metaphors and New Measures of the Microcosm 36
3 Early Discernment of the Minute 47
4 The Great Cleanup 67
5 Atoms and Microbes: New Guides to the Small and Invisible 92
6 Discerning the Invisible for the Good of the Nation 110
7 Lighting Up the Microcosm 126
8 The Snake Still Lurks 143
Conclusion: Who Will Tremble at These Marvels? 157
Notes 179
Bibliographic Essay 221
Personal Thoughts and Thanks 237
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